100 Hours to Government Shutdown?

The clock is ticking. As Congress returns from a week’s recess today, there are little more than 100 hours before the government’s spending authority expires at midnight Friday. Both sides are crafting plans in hopes of ending the standoff. This week, Republicans in the House of Representatives plan to vote on a short-term bill that would fund the government through midnight March 18 and cut $4 billion from agencies. Senate Democrats, who are working on their own plan to pay the bills through September, tentatively have backed the House proposal. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the chamber’s top Democrat, has not yet signed off on an agreement. Waiting for a solution are 2.8 million civilians who work for Uncle Sam, not including 1.6 million uniformed members of the military. Troops would be among those retained in a shutdown, along with air-traffic controllers, postal carriers and anyone deemed “essential” under rules issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Arizona Shooting has Little Effect on National Gun Debate

In the days after six people were killed and 13 wounded in a massacre near Tucson, many people hoped the shooting spree would spark a new debate about guns in America. Today, more than seven weeks after the shooting that left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with a serious gunshot wound to the head, hundreds of gun-related bills are being considered in statehouses nationwide. But in most cases, the proposals reflect long-standing ideas familiar to both sides of the issue. Even in Arizona, where several bills are pending that would expand the state’s already liberal gun rights, the shooting did not reset the debate. The lack of change in the legislative agenda may be because of public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. January polling by the Pew Research Center found that respondents were about evenly divided on the question of whether they favor protecting general gun rights more than instituting further general gun controls.

Wisconsin Protest Saturday ‘One of Largest’

Dozens of protesters camped overnight in the Wisconsin Capitol and vowed to be back in full force Monday after police backed away from threats to close the building, where demonstrators have held steady for two weeks to oppose Republican-backed legislation aimed at weakening unions. Police figure the crowd of protesters Saturday in downtown Madison, Wis., exceeded last week’s Saturday protest, which was estimated at 70,000 people and included a small counter-demonstration by supporters of Gov. Scott Walker. The crowd could have numbered as high as 100,000, but counting it was difficult because it was spread over parts of State Street as well as the Capitol Square and in the Capitol itself. Police said there were no arrests and called the demonstrators “a very civil group.” A crowd of about 250 chanting, sign-waving supporters at a noon rally in Tallahassee, Florida in support of Wisconsin unions, denounced plans to lay off Florida employees and raise the cost of their health care and retirement benefits.

  • As the rock and a hard place squeeze more tightly together, tough choices between budget cuts and social services will result in more and more conflicts at the state level. The federal government did a good job of printing money and pushing the debt problem downhill to state and local governments which don’t have that same ability to manufacture money out of thin air.

Judge Tosses Out Lawsuit Against Obama Health Care Law

Last week, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit claiming that President Barack Obama’s requirement that all Americans have health insurance violates the religious freedom of those who rely on God to protect them. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, on behalf of five Americans who can afford health insurance but have chosen for years not to buy it. The case was one of several lawsuits filed against Obama’s requirement that Americans either buy health insurance or pay a penalty, beginning in 2014. Kessler is the third Democratic-appointed judge to dismiss a challenge, while two Republican-appointed judges have ruled part or all of the law unconstitutional. Kessler wrote that the Supreme Court will need to settle the constitutional issues.

U.S. Health Care Law Subject to Nullification?

In their battle against the federal health care legislation, Republican lawmakers in at least 11 states are turning to a centuries-old and rarely used tactic in an effort to wrest power from the federal government. The Republican-controlled Idaho House of Representatives became the first elected body in the nation to pass a nullification bill when it voted 49-20 in favor of a measure to nullify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Seven Republicans voted against the nulification bill along with all House Democrats. The doctrine of nullification has deep roots in U.S. history. Thomas Jefferson in 1798 first outlined the notion that states have the right to void federal laws that they perceive run contrary to the U.S. Constitution when he argued against Congress’ passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Arizona’s Public-School Funding Battered by Recession

Arizona is facing two, possibly three, consecutive years of declines in basic per-student funding for K-12 schools. The Great Recession battered the state’s take from sales, property and income taxes and public-land sales, causing Arizona to chop its per-student funding, hike the sales tax and patch in with federal stimulus aid. The stimulus money will vanish in 2012, likely forcing further budget cuts. The state is trying to shore up K-12, but already it has dropped support of all-day kindergarten, cut funding for classroom equipment, and stopped kicking in money to maintain school buildings. Schools are making up for losses with property taxes and other federal money, yet still have laid off staff, trimmed salaries and raised class sizes. Laws are being floated to put in place more cost-saving approaches for K-12, such as offering more online education and graduating students sooner out of high school.

Christian Medical Plans Get Pass from Health Law

Religious “health care sharing ministries” successfully lobbied Democratic lawmakers to free their members from the requirement that everyone in the country have health insurance. “Christians are exempt from insurance mandates,” Niles’ old plan, Medi-Share, says on its website. Sharing ministries are “the only organized health care concept to receive a special exemption from the taxes, penalties and regulations” that the law imposes on insurers, the site says. Medi-Share members affirm a statement of Christian beliefs and pledge to follow a code that includes no tobacco or illegal drugs, no sex outside of marriage, and no abuse of alcohol or legal medications. Every month, they pay a fixed “share” to cover the medical expenses of members in need. The cost usually is less than private insurance, but it’s not tax deductible. Members use a network of medical providers.

“It accomplishes some of the same purposes of health insurance,” said Medi-Share’s president, Robert Baldwin. “There are also a lot of contrasts … first and foremost, the biblical basis: Members pray for one another and are prone to encouraging one another.” Medi-Share says it’s faithfully helped members pay medical bills for more than 17 years, based on a Bible verse: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Consumer advocates call them a gamble because there’s no guarantee they will pay claims.

  • And no one’s claims are ever denied by insurance companies? Yeah, right.

Scientists Study Rash of Baby Dolphin Deaths in Gulf

A rash of baby dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico has worried federal marine scientists, who are trying to come up with theories to explain the mystery. So far this year, 29 fetal-sized calves have been found dead on the beaches of the northern Gulf. A typical year sees only two such reports, usually in March. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official Teri Rowles says that it’s too early to tell whether the deaths are tied to last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Although the stranded calves appear in varied states of decomposition, all of them died within the last few months.

Credit Flows to the Rich, Dries Up for the Poor

A year after sweeping credit card regulations upended the industry, banks are showering perks and rewards on big spenders with sterling credit scores, while customers who have spottier histories are being socked with higher interest rates, lower credit limits and new annual fees. In some cases the riskiest customers are being dropped altogether. The widening differences between how customers are treated is largely the result of new constraints on card issuers. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, or the CARD Act, was signed into law with great fanfare last year. A key change is that issuers can no longer hike rates on existing balances or in the first year an account is open. The penalty for late payments is also capped at $25 per violation. And monthly statements must clearly spell out the projected costs of making only minimum payments. The regulations are already transforming cards on the market. To make up for the drop in revenue, banks are imposing new annual fees and hiking interest rates — but mostly for those with the lowest credit scores. The best customers are more prized than ever.

Economic News

The jobs that were created and saved by the economic stimulus legislation that President Barack Obama signed in February 2009 cost at least $228,055 each, according to new data from the Congressional Budget Office. In a report released on Wednesday, the CBO said it now estimates the stimulus bill costs $821 billion, up from its original estimate of $787 billion. The CBO also estimated that between 1.4 and 3.6 million were employed as a result of the stimulus bill during the third quarter of 2010. The figures take into account not only the new jobs believed to have been created, but also the existing jobs that were saved that would otherwise have been lost. So the $821 billion cost of the stimulus, divided by the maximum of 3.6 million jobs the CBO believes were saved or created, equals $228,055 for each job, according to CNS News. Using the 1.4 million figure for jobs created or saved means each job cost $586,428.

The massive oil terminal at Brega feels strangely deserted for Libya’s second-largest hydrocarbon complex. After more than a week of turmoil in the country, production has been scaled back by almost 90% with many employees fleeing and ships not coming to collect its products.

Airlines have posted fare increases as a result of their ballooning fuel costs. High fuel prices are also putting a squeeze on drivers’ wallets just as they are starting to feel better about the economy. They’re also forcing tough choices on small-business owners who are reluctant to charge more for fear of losing cost-conscious customers. Gasoline prices rose almost 20 cents a gallon in the past week, or 6%, to a national average $3.368 per gallon Monday according to AAA. That’s the most ever for this time of year, when prices are typically low. And with unrest in the Middle East and North Africa lifting the price of crude oil to the $100-a-barrel range, analysts say pump prices are likely headed higher.

Israel

The Jerusalem Prayer Team reports that “the news media and government officials have bent over backwards to portray the forces that toppled Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt as ‘moderates.’ The President’s Director of National Intelligence called the Muslim Brotherhood a “mostly secular” group that has “renounced violence.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Last week the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood returned to Egypt from exile in Qatar. Before a crowd estimated at one million strong, he called for the “liberation” of Jerusalem. The people chanted in reply: “To Jerusalem we go to be millions of martyrs.” he unrest across the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, poses a grave threat to Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has joined with Hamas in calling for Egypt’s border with Gaza to be opened. Mubarak’s soldiers had stopped much of the weaponry sent from Iran from reaching the terrorists there, and the supposedly moderate student group April 6 has called on the government to stop natural gas shipments to Israel. These Muslim extremists are anything but moderate.

Egypt

A constitutional reform panel on Saturday recommended opening Egypt’s presidential elections to competition and imposing a two-term limit on future presidents — a dramatic shift from a system that allowed the ousted Hosni Mubarak to rule for three decades. The changes are among 10 proposed constitutional amendments that are to be put to a popular referendum later this year. The proposals appeared to address many of the demands of the reform movement that help lead the 18-day popular uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11. But some Egyptians worry that the proposed changes don’t go far enough to ensure a transition to democratic rule, and could allow the entrenched old guard to maintain its grip on power.

Egyptian military police beat protesters Saturday to clear them from outside the Cabinet office where they were trying to camp out overnight to press demands for sweeping political reforms and the dismissal of remnants of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The clash signaled a tougher line from Egypt’s military rulers, who had avoided violently confronting anti-government protesters in the streets while promising to meet their demands for democratic reform and return the country to civilian rule. The protest movement, however, is growing impatient, and tens of thousands rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square throughout the day on Friday to keep up the pressure and, in particular, to demand the dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed by Mubarak.

Libya

Rebellion threatens to turn into a Libyan civil war as armed rebels braced Monday for a showdown today with troops loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi, only 30 miles from the capital city, Tripoli. Anti-government forces in Zawiya, just west of Tripoli, were surrounded by heavily armed forces loyal to Gadhafi. The Gadhafi loyalists also set up checkpoints along the main road between Zawiya and the capital, looking to stop any incursion of anti-government forces. Despite the prospects of more violence, sanctions from the United Nations, the United States and Britain, and calls for him to step down, Gadhafi has remained defiant.

Moammar Gadhafi, the longest-serving Arab ruler alive, holds no official title. For four decades, he insisted on being called “the Leader” by both close friends and visiting emissaries, ruling over oil-rich Libya through a patchwork of rival institutions that barely constituted a government. And he held onto power through ruthless oppression that included public hangings and massacres. Now Gadhafi’s airtight grip on Libya is being pried away as mass protests bring his nation to the brink of civil war. His tenuous relations with the United States and the West have fractured, his bank accounts worldwide are under scrutiny, and some of his top advisers have resigned or defected.

The U.N. Security Council moved Saturday to halt Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s deadly crackdown on protesters, slapping sanctions on him, his five children and 10 top associates. The European Union also agreed Monday to sanction Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, including an arms embargo, asset freeze and visa  ban. The Obama administration froze assets of the Libyan government, leader Moammar Gadhafi and four of his children Friday, just hours after it closed the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and evacuated its remaining staff.

Tunisia

Tunisia’s interim president chose a former government minister as a new prime minister on Sunday, appealing for a return to calm following new violent protests that have been hobbling this North African country since the ouster of its long-time autocratic leader. Beji Caid-Essebsi will replace Mohammed Ghannouchi, who resigned earlier Sunday after becoming a major irritant to Tunisians behind the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” that toppled autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last month and sparked a wave of upheaval in the Arab world. As Ben Ali’s prime minister for 11 years, Ghannouchi became the emblem of an entrenched old guard that many Tunisians feared were hijacking their revolution.

Saudi Arabia

More than 100 leading Saudi academics and activists are calling on the oil-rich country’s monarch to enact sweeping changes, including setting up a constitutional monarchy, as mass protests that have engulfed other Arab nations lapped at Saudi Arabia’s shores. The statement seen on several Saudi websites Sunday reflects the undercurrent of tension that has simmered for years in the world’s largest oil producer. While King Abdullah is seen as a reformer, the pace of those changes has been slow as Saudi officials balance the need to push the country forward with the perennial pressure from hard-line clergy in the conservative nation.

China

A heavy police presence blunted protests in China that were modeled on demonstrations across the Middle East. The crackdown highlighted China’s resolve to deter any would-be protesters from responding to an online call for “Jasmine Rallies” in China’s capital and other cities. Echoing protests in the Arab world, the U.S.-based website boxun.com last week posted a call for citizens to gather every Sunday at specified locations in each city, including a Beijing McDonald’s. This was the second Sunday of scheduled protests. Chinese police swamped the area around a well-known McDonalds restaurant Sunday. Similar tactics were employed in Shanghai.

Afghanistan

Sixty-five civilians, including 40 children, were killed in a NATO assault on insurgents in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month, according to findings of an Afghan government investigation released Sunday. Tribal leaders had alleged that dozens of civilians were killed in the operation in Kunar province, which involved rocket and air strikes, but NATO has not confirmed any civilian deaths. The incident inflamed tensions between the Afghan government and NATO forces, and both sides opened investigations. Civilian deaths have been increasing in recent months as insurgents appear to become more indiscriminate in their targets, attacking banks, supermarkets and sporting events. At least three separate attacks Sunday, including one targeting spectators at an illegal dog fight, killed nine Afghan civilians and two NATO service members, officials said.

Iraq

Gunmen attacked Iraq’s largest oil refinery Saturday, killing one guard and detonating bombs that sparked a fire and forced the facility to shut down. Assailants broke into the Beiji refinery around 3:30 a.m., attacked the guards and planted bombs. One guard was killed and another wounded. Beiji is about 155 miles north of Baghdad. The refinery processes about 150,000 barrels of oil per day. Firefighters were still trying to put out a blaze started by the bomb explosions.

Earthquakes

Seismologists say a moderately strong earthquake with preliminary magnitude 5.2 has struck off the southern Greek island of Crete. There have been no initial reports of damage or injuries. The undersea quake occurred at 9:50 a.m. Monday, some 230 miles south-southwest of Athens, according to the Athens Geodynamic Institute. Greece is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, but serious damage or fatalities are rare.

A 4.7-magnitude earthquake struck central Arkansas just after 11 p.m. Sunday (12 a.m. ET Monday), the United States Geological Survey said. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The quake’s epicenter was 37 miles from Little Rock, Arkansas. More than 700 quakes have hit central Arkansas since September.The latest quakes are on a previously unknown fault.

Residents held open-air prayers for the dead and missing Sunday on the lawns of churches cracked and shattered in New Zealand’s earthquake while teams searched for more bodies in what could become the country’s deadliest disaster. “As our citizens make their way to church this Sunday they will be joined in prayer by millions around the world,” said Mayor Bob Parker of the devastated city of Christchurch. The death toll rose Sunday to 146, with officials citing “grave fears” for the more than 200 still missing.

Wildfires

Wildfires sweeping across West Texas destroyed 58 homes, forced evacuations and closed an interstate after heavy smoke caused an accident that killed a 5-year-old girl Sunday. The fires blackened almost 88,000 acres (35,000 hectares) and destroyed homes from the Texas Panhandle to the southern plains, Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney said. The largest fire burned about 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) in the Panhandle northeast of Amarillo, destroying 27 homes and damaging seven others.

Weather

Another severe storm walloped the East on Friday, delaying flights, closing scores of schools and leading to at least one death. About 8 inches of snow fell in Albany by noon Friday with an expected accumulation through the weekend of 12 to 16 inches. In a suburb of Rochester, a 34-year-old woman died Friday afternoon after she was hit by a Pittsford plow truck backing up in a parking lot. A 30-mile stretch of the New York Thruway was closed by an accident south of Buffalo, and in Maine, dozens of cars were reported off the road. Flights out of New York’s metropolitan-area airports were delayed by the rain and wind.

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